It's time to wave goodbye to single-sex schools
Opinion: Segregated education has messed with my non-existent romantic life and stunted my ability to form male friendships
The evolution of our educational system has been influenced heavily by the history of the Irish Catholic Church and its role in education. Photograph: Getty Images
Boys have never really featured in my life. I attended an all-girls’ Catholic primary and secondary school and I am now in my third year of study to become a primary school teacher, a female-dominated profession.
Boys are pretty to look at and fun to flirt with on the bar stools in Ryan’s on a Friday night, but I don’t truly understand them. I can’t hold the conversation. I do, however, know how to smile and wink and make a boy think he’s fallen in love at first sight. I miss this in lockdown, and I am dying for Dublin’s night life to resume, but I have not yet mastered the art of communication with the male species. I have never been in a serious relationship. Sometimes I wonder is there something wrong with me? Do I repel men? Am I missing some vital brain part that would allow for male connection?
In primary school a white painted line on the school yard’s tarmac separated the boys’ school from the girls’. The girls who loitered around the white line were brave and rebellious and wild. They waved at the boys from the other side of the line until the teacher on yard patrol shooed them back to class. I remember in sixth class, a classmate was standing too close to the line when the principal walked past. She was scolded and publicly shamed and told to button her shirt up to the collar.
The first time a boy spoke to me was from the side of a pitch during an under-13s camogie match. I was propping up the ball for a sideline cut when a skinny teenage boy in a grey striped tracksuit, a few years my senior, started giving me guff. “Ah c’mere boys. Look at dis wun’s legs. De f*kin lengt of dem hairs. You’d wanna get a razor at dem tings darlin'.”
I fluffed the shot, of course, and the sliotar dribbled pathetically along the grass. The pack of boys laughed on. I don’t think I owned a razor at the time. I didn’t understand this boy, if this is what boys were like, then I didn’t need that kind of disappointment in my life.
In secondary school, boys were these alien creatures who rode their BMX bikes through the school gates on the opposite side of the road. Boys and girls separated still by a white line but now a broken one which allowed for overtaking and could be crossed.
I first ventured over that line in fourth year when I was 16. Some boys and girls were selected from a hat to participate in a public-speaking programme. I was nervous and skittish, and I had never seen a boy up close before. At 16 I was thrown into the lion’s den and was expected to integrate with these beastly organisms who huddled together, thumping their chests and slapping each other’s backs, guffawing at some abstract inside joke I couldn’t understand but giggled girlishly along with anyway in attempt to be liked. It was strange to see them in their natural habitat.
The smell was both pungent and wafting, a combination of sweat and a cheap, sickly Lynx that gave me a headache. I felt self-conscious to the point of social dysfunction. I would go home and lie in bed and replay in my head all the ways in which I embarrassed myself in front of these boys, these boys who I desperately wanted to fit in with, who I hoped with an all-consuming desperation would find me attractive. I had picked up the message somewhere along the way that to be valued was to be seen by a boy and only conventional physical beauty would attract the male gaze. Being seen by a boy was the ultimate social capital, the ultimate form of validation, the only validation I craved. I also, admittedly, liked this experimental hanging out with boys; the thrill of hanging out on the other side of white line.
While segregated education has messed with my non-existent romantic life and stunted my ability to form male friendships, it has also enabled the development of a deep appreciation for the medicinal qualities of female friendship. It has been my female friends who taught me my physical appearance does not equate to my worth, that food is not the enemy, that the beach is for surfing and sunbathing in hot sand. It was not meant for concealing your “repulsive fatness” under a towel.
It is my female friends who have walked me through the irregular periods and breast lumps. They squeezed my hand during painful at-home DIY hair removals. It was the girls who I stuffed tissues in my bra with before our first underage disco in the Gaeltacht in Connemara. It was a female friend who gave me step-by-step instructions over Facetime when I couldn’t locate my vagina trying to insert a tampon age 15. She was only short of drawing me a diagram because in school, though I was taught to label the uterus and the fallopian tubes, though we were taught to label even the penis and scrotum, we had never labelled the vulva, a gaping hole in the RSE curriculum.
It is the girls who I have cried with over failed academic and athletic pursuits. It’s with three girls crammed into one cubicle in the bathroom in Angel Lane that we have mended broken hearts, performed emotional open-heart surgery (in the background some desperate soul bangs down the door dying for a whizz). It’s the girls who give me a pep talk before pushing me towards that lad at the bar. This is despite the fact I would much rather dance the night away with them because I have learned that there is nothing that a bop in Flannery’s (a ‘flanobops’ as we like to call it) can’t fix. It is my female friends who have helped me make this awkward and bumpy transition from adolescence to young adulthood. I might never understand the boys but there will always be the girls.
I paint a pretty picture of female friendship. There has also been comparison, competition bruised egos, jealousy and squabbles over boys who don’t care anyway. As we grow older, there can now be heated discussions on capitalism versus socialism, tax policies and privatisation as we all, the passionate youths, begin to formulate our political identities.
There are friendships that ebb and flow and some that wane, never to be renewed. Some friendships have been difficult to salvage but as a student who has spent her entire educational career surrounded by women, I will graduate (one day with the help of God) with a degree in female communication. It is this ability to communicate with each other that allows for the survival of these female bonds, the bonds that nourish me so deeply. My 14-year-old brother tells me, “Megan, girls just sit around and talk about their feelings all day” and he’s not wrong. I spend a disproportionate amount of time talking about my feelings with my friends and this, from the other side of the white line, appears to be what can be absent in male friendships.
I do not mean to do men a disservice (#notallmen). There are men in my life that I am grateful I can turn to but my brother has grown up with two older sisters, listening to tales of menstrual cups and bra malfunctions and my dad is a trained psychotherapist and practising Yogi (He basically thinks he’s Buddha. In yoga class, the instructor often has to apologise to him for opening the class with a cheery "Good morning ladies. Oh. Sorry and Rob. Didn’t see you there"). These males who are central in my life, who I love and who are so hugely important to me; I don’t think they are representative of the wider Irish male population.
If we’ve learned anything from Sally Rooney’s Normal People and Paul Mescal’s gut-wrenching and unrestricted portrayal of Connell in therapy, it is that boys are not often afforded a space to speak freely their innermost feelings, to reach out to one another in times when friendships have crumbled due to life circumstance. As depicted in the show, the consequences of this can be devastating. We already knew this may be. On the other side of the white line, it seems to me that emotional expression is “gay” or “girlish” (this is not considered to be a positive thing, but rather something shameful; in case you were unsure).
It is in this way, the LGBTQ community, women and men themselves are harmed by the censorship of male emotion. Outside of therapy, I wonder do males feel like they have permission to outwardly display feelings of embarrassment, inadequacy, shame, angst, and insecurity? If not, then why?
Sometimes when I talk to boys, I still feel like we are separated by some imaginary white line. There is nothing natural about the separated education of boys and girls and the result is a stark gender difference and a warped socialisation that, in my experience, has proved difficult now to undo. The result is the accentuation of a toxic lad culture in which feelings are shamed while also the perpetuation a toxic female culture where girls compete for the attention of the male gaze if they are considered pretty or grades if they are considered clever, stitching their self-worth to their weight or their academic ability.
As per the history books, segregation of the human race, in all its forms has not proved to be beneficial. There are the studies, of course, that show that girls who attend all girls’ schools reap academic benefits, but I would argue that our psychosocial development is stunted at the hands of this meritocratic system.
The evolution of our educational system has been influenced heavily by the history of the Irish Catholic Church and its role in education but also the rise of capitalism and the dominant transactional model of education where the teacher is paid to produce the academic gains and straight As of her students in State examinations. Good grades seem to trump the need for the holistic development of the child.
I will continue to try and develop meaningful male friendships, erase the white line, undo this strange socialisation that has left me awkward and blushing in the presence of men. I’m on Tinder now. If there are any boys who would like to grab a coffee and talk about their internal emotional landscapes for an hour or two, swipe right.